Antimicrobial dips and sprays have tested properties that have been aiding processors in the meat and poultry industries for decades now.

“Antimicrobial sprays have been shown to reduce both the prevalence and population of many pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella and pathogenic E. coli, on fresh meats,” says Jim Dickson, a professor in the department of animal science at Iowa State University, in Ames. “They have been in use for more than 20 years, and their contribution to the overall safety of meats has been significant.”

For Cargill, antimicrobial dips and sprays are part of a multi-hurdle effort by the company’s animal protein businesses to address naturally and randomly occurring bacteria that could potentially pose human health risk from foodborne illnesses. While the current antimicrobials being used have proven to be effective, the industry continues to look at emerging technologies and products that have promise, says Angie Siemens, Cargill’s vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory affairs in Wichita, Kansas.

“One of the areas we continue to explore is the most effective way to use existing antimicrobials in combination with each other, and at which stages of production their use is most effective,” she says. “Continuously working toward improved delivery systems that enhance contact time between the organism and antimicrobial is also an area of focus for us.”

Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council, Washington, D.C., says continued research and advances in technology are aiding in improving the efficacy of antimicrobials. “The more effective an antimicrobial may be, the better it is at improving food safety,” she says.

Dips and sprays previously were used predominately during the evisceration process of chicken processing; however, with the increased focus on chicken parts, new methods to apply antimicrobial dips and sprays when birds are cut up into parts are becoming more common, Peterson says.

Additionally, research is ongoing to find a variety of effective tools that the chicken industry can use. For example, the industry continues to look at new ways to improve food safety from the use of organic acids to phages, Peterson says. “Maximizing the effectiveness of the antimicrobial while taking a conservative approach to water use is of importance to the industry,” she adds.

Interest in new antimicrobial dips and sprays remains prevalent, Dickson says, especially those that would be acceptable to export markets.

“There are a few new antimicrobial sprays that are just coming on the market which appear to be both effective in reducing microbial contamination, and which may be acceptable to our trading partners,” he says.

Intervention hurdles

While antimicrobial dips and sprays have proven effective, these interventions are not without their difficulties. For example, getting the antimicrobials in direct contact with the bacteria processors are trying to mitigate can be a challenge. For instance, in poultry processing, bacteria such as Salmonella has the potential to get entrapped in follicles after a bird’s feathers are removed. “It’s not large numbers of the pathogens that are present there, but typically they are finding small numbers of contamination that are in the skin,” says Michael Doyle, regents professor and director for the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, in Griffin.

Exposure time of antimicrobials is another important factor in the effectiveness of antimicrobials. “If it’s only a few seconds, it’s not going to be as effective if it’s for a minute of exposure time,” Doyle explains.

Another challenge is ensuring the quality of the product is not adversely affected by using these technologies. In addition, antimicrobial dips and sprays are processing aids, and the vast majority are not required to be declared on labels. “They are approved for use by USDA,” Cargill’s Siemens explains. “They need to be used in a manner in which the consuming public understands the reasons for using antimicrobials and the benefits derived from doing.”

Securing regulatory approval for use of antimicrobials has a long horizon, Siemens adds, and export markets affect the use and approval of some antimicrobials because of their restrictions. Dickson agrees that sprays and dips are such a part of normal processing in the United States that the real challenge is the export market and getting countries like Japan and those in the European Union to accept them.

The Chicken Council’s Peterson adds that the industry remains committed to ensuring the safety of workers while producing a safe and wholesome product. “It is of upmost importance that the use of antimicrobials pose no risk to our employees yet are effective at improving the safety profile of our products,” she says. “Specialized engineering and application methods are aiding in keeping our employees safe. Though the majority of dips and sprays that are used in chicken processing would never have the opportunity to come in contact with our employees, the industry puts a great deal of emphasis on training programs, proper handling and personal protective equipment to ensure everyone’s safety.” NP